When Dean got out of Hell, he insisted that he remembered nothing from his time down under. But Sam could tell he was lying. The truth was revealed in the form of almost constant drinking, and worst of all, the nightmares.
Dean hardly slept. It was obvious that he avoided it like the plague. But when he finally passed out from exhaustion, sleep was anything but restful. He tossed and turned, his breathing labored. His face would often contort as if he was in pain. He mumbled pleas for help, and sometimes he would wake up with a half-strangled shout.
Sam tried to get him to talk about it, but his brother shut him down every time. They were chasing cases almost nonstop. Dean was running. Trying to get away from the demons in his head by killing every monster he could find.
Of all the unhealthy coping mechanisms Dean had developed over the years, there was one that Sam had hoped he'd never return to.
It was the end of another long day, and they'd just gotten back to the motel room after laying another Spirit to rest. This one had been kind of tricky; her body was entombed in a giant cement structure in the woods. They had to dodge her ghost while trying to set up the explosives to blow the damn thing up.
"Throw me a beer, will you?" Dean said, setting up Sam's laptop at the small table.
"What are you doing?" The younger Winchester asked, ignoring his request.
"What's it look like?"
"It looks like you're about to search for another case. Dude, we literally just wrapped this one up." Sam said irritably.
"Fine," Dean shrugged. "I'll just watch porn."
"Where's my beer?"
"I'm not your maid, jerk."
Sam rolled his eyes and opened the fridge, grabbing a cold one and extending it towards Dean. As he reached out, he noticed a small spot of blood on his brother's sleeve. It was a thin line on the inside of his forearm.
"What's that?" Sam asked uneasily.
"Huh? Oh, it's nothing. Bitch must have nicked me." He popped the top off the beer and took a long swig.
"Let me see."
"Dude, it's nothing. Just a scratch."
"Dean, are you cutting again?" Sam asked quietly, already knowing the answer. This exchange was all too familiar.
"What? No!" He sputtered, choking on his drink.
"Then let me see." Sam insisted stubbornly.
"We're not having this conversation." Dean mumbled.
"You are, aren't you?" Sam accused.
"Dammit, leave me alone."
"I can't help you if I don't know what's going on!" He reached for Dean's arm and jerked up the sleeve before he had a chance to react. His fears were confirmed by the exposed skin: a mess of cuts and scratches.
"I don't want your help, Sammy." Dean said quietly, yanking his arm away and tugging the sleeve back down.
Sam swallowed hard, feeling that familiar helpless reaction. "Yeah, but you obviously need it."
Sam sighed in frustration. "If you would just talk to me-"
"How would that help, Sam? How would talking about it help my screwed up head?" Dean shouted. "Fine, you were right. I remember Hell. I remember every Goddamn second. I remember the screams, the blood, the pain, all of it. I see it every time I close my eyes. Sometimes I think this is all some fucked-up hallucination, and I'll wake up down there again." He was shaking.
"You're safe, De. You got out." Sam said quietly.
"That's easy to believe now." Dean let out a bitter laugh. "Not so much at 2am when the nightmares won't fucking stop."
"Tell me what to do...you've gotta let me help you!" Sam tried to touch his brother's shoulder, but Dean flinched. He'd been doing that a lot lately, and it only reminded Sam that he was more damaged than he let on. "You shouldn't have to deal with this alone."
"There's nothing you can do, little brother." Dean said gruffly. "There's nothing anyone can do."
"Well I'm gonna try anyway."
"Ha. Good luck." Dean took another long sip of beer, hoping it would stop the slight tremor in his hands.
"Would you at least let me try?"
"Tell me when you feel like cutting. Let me see if I can help."
"And if you can't?"
Sam was quiet. "Then I guess you can cut." He said reluctantly. "But only a little. And I'll watch to make sure you don't hurt yourself too bad." The thought of watching his brother slice into himself made him feel sick. But if it was the only way to keep Dean safe, he'd do it.
"Fine." Dean grudgingly agreed. "But I ain't letting you watch."
"We'll cross that bridge if we get to it."
Three days passed, and Dean acted like the conversation never happened. Sam was worried that he wasn't sticking to his side of the agreement, and continuing to cut anyway. If he chose to blow him off, there really wasn't a lot Sam could do. Dean had to want to get better.
It was late evening and Sam was surfing the web for anything strange. Dean had gone out to "grab a drink," which usually translated to "get laid". This is why it was unexpected when Dean wandered back in only two hours after leaving.
"Hey, no luck with the ladies?"
"Shut up." Dean mumbled. "I couldn't get drunk."
Sam tried to act surprised, but failed. "Your uh, tolerance must be pretty high by now."
Dean shrugged, going to the fridge. He grabbed a beer.
"Hey, haven't you had enough tonight?" Sam stood and walked over, grabbing the bottle from his hands.
Sam eyed his brother. Something was wrong. Dean looked miserable. (More so than usual.) His hands were trembling ever so slightly, and he had this restless look in his eyes.
"Are you okay?"
Dean laughed, a harsh, humorless sound. "Peachy." He pushed past Sam and locked himself in the bathroom.
Sam tried to bury his uneasiness. Dean would talk to him before doing anything stupid, right?
Ten minutes later, he couldn't ignore it any longer. He knocked on the door. "Everything alright in there?"
Seconds later, the door swung open to reveal his disheveled brother. Dean's hair was going in different directions; it looked like he'd been running his hands through it. His breathing was heavy and his eyes held a desperate expression.
And most disturbing; he was clutching a hunting knife so tight that his knuckles were turning pale.
"I need help, Sammy." He choked out.
Sam felt his stomach drop. "Give me the knife." He asked in a firm voice, reaching out. Dean looked at him with defeat, releasing his death grip on the blade. Sam took it and tossed it far out of Dean's reach. He held Dean by the shoulders, looking him over for any signs of injury.
"Did you cut?"
"No." Dean's voice was strained. "But I really want to."
Sam felt so powerless. He wanted to help, but he didn't know how. "I'm proud of you." He finally breathed.
Dean let out a noise that was half sob, half laugh. "You shouldn't be." He leaned on the doorframe as if overcome by sudden weakness.
"Come on." Sam helped him over to the bed. Dean put his head in his hands, and Sam struggled to find the right words. "Do you wanna go for a drive?"
They got in the car, and started driving. Sam took the wheel for once, and Dean sat quietly in the passenger seat.
The radio played softly, and the roar of the motor was comforting. Sam noticed that his brother was staring ahead intensely, and digging his nails into his wrist. "Hey!" Sam gently grabbed Dean's arm. "Please stop." He begged.
"I'm sorry," The older Winchester whispered brokenly, pulling away.
After a few moments, Sam recognized the song playing. "Remember this?" He gave a small smile. "Back in Black. Dad used to turn it up all the way. We sang at the top of our lungs. You were convinced that Dad belonged in an 80's hair band." He chuckled softly.
And he kept talking. He rambled on about anything and everything, just speaking quietly. Little by little, Dean relaxed into the seat. The wild desperation faded from his eyes, and gave way to sleepiness. After about an hour, he began to snore softly. Sam looked over, relieved. He let out a shaky breath of his own.
It had been a close call, but it was one relapse avoided. One success closer to recovery.